Holding others accountable. It’s often easier said than done. One executive says she wants to see more accountability, at all levels, in the company and she can’t understand why deadlines are regularly missed. Another leader tells me he is tired of excuses and the blaming that goes round-and-round. Both think that if they hired more accountable folks, the problem would be solved.
What’s the deal? Are we really recruiting people who seem committed, only to have them lose interest once signed on? Perhaps. More than a few companies have a way of burning out new hires by taking advantage of their eagerness at the start.
Perhaps the shift needs to happen in our definition of accountability. I hear leaders calling it a personality trait – an innate thing that you either have or don’t. Some competency models suggest this. The truth is that most of us hold ourselves accountable in different measure in different situations. Our level of work accountability has to do with upfront engagement and our belief that we might be “left holding the bag” when something goes wrong.
If you want to increase accountability, consider putting these supports in place.
- Start with clarity. In the rush to create agile workplaces and scrum teams, don’t confuse flexibility with ambiguity. Be clear about the area of accountabilities, if not the actual tasks. Be clear about expectations for timeliness and quality. When more than one person or team is involved, discuss how intersections – and collisions – will be handled.
- Don’t give accountability to someone who can’t deliver. It might fit into their role, function or expertise, but that doesn’t mean they can make it happen. Give them valid authority. Can they access all the information and tools they need, and then will others support their right to decide on actions? Be careful that senior leaders or significant customers aren’t frequently flipping decisions or correcting delivered work. Nothing discourages accountability like constant do-overs and take-overs.
- To avoid the trap of 2: Make requests not demands, and encourage conversation when assignments take place. Assess interest early. Explicitly ask people if the deliverables, deadlines and outcomes are realistic – or at least probable – given their understanding of the situation. Ask if they are interested and excited to tackle it. Provide direction for when to escalate issues or seek help. Remove organizational barriers across teams so people can collaborate and not compete.
- Make everyone accountable for keeping lines of communication open. No one on a team can sit out for long. Provide regular forums and plenty of chances for workplace connections. Encourage everyone to write and speak succinctly, and to share often and openly. Make sure no one feels foolish asking questions from any level. Tell people to speak up and ask for what they need.
- If conversation is happening mostly over devices, people are reading, not listening. Listening is an interpersonal skill built with practice. Accountability is best figured out through dialogue, and messaging is not a dialogue, no matter how rapid. Many misunderstandings can be traced to unspoken assumptions and hidden impacts. Increase reliance on real conversations where tone, body language and inflection give clues about what’s going on for people underneath the words.
We are all accountable to something. A culture of accountability means everyone is accountable for each other’s success. It strips out blame and shame and replaces it with the right to be curious and the expectation to be honest. People hold themselves accountable when they care deeply about the outcome, and when they feel supported by a team that wants them to succeed.